- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 12, 2000

The shock waves from George W. Bush's latest effort to woo black voters rattled Democratic leaders nationwide yesterday, and the top-ranking black in Congress said Democrats are "scared to death" that Mr. Bush will succeed.

"They're irritated that a Republican would tread in their waters," House Republican Chairman J.C. Watts Jr. said of Democratic leaders. "It scares them to death to think that some black people might listen to George Bush, or some Hispanic people might listen."

While response to his Monday speech to NAACP members at their annual convention in Baltimore was at times tepid, the Texas governor drew loud and sustained applause with the line: "For those of you who support me I see a couple here, maybe more than a couple I hope you won't change your opinion."

Democrats from civil rights leader Jesse Jackson to top members of Congress moved quickly yesterday to dilute the message of Mr. Bush's speech and to tell blacks that the Republican Party does not have their best interests at heart.

"Governor Bush has failed to take a stand against the Confederate flag," Mr. Jackson said in a statement by his Rainbow/PUSH coalition. "Before a black audience, he neglected to address the monumental insult that the flying of the Confederate flag in South Carolina represents."

During the Republican primary in South Carolina in February, Mr. Bush and his chief rival, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, said state residents should decide whether to remove the Confederate battle flag atop the state Capitol. Recently the legislature moved the flag to a monument on the Statehouse grounds.

Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy of Rhode Island, chairman of the House Democrats' campaign fund-raising effort, criticized Mr. Bush's "token appearance at an NAACP event." The previous two Republican nominees did not speak to the group.

"This guy is 180 degrees opposed to everything that African-Americans in this country stand for," Mr. Kennedy said. "This is a fellow who's bought and sold by the [National Rifle Association]. He's opposed to affirmative action."

Bush spokesman Dan Bartlett said Mr. Bush favors "affirmative access" programs instead of quotas. For example, he supported a state plan that guarantees college admission for the top 10 percent of high school seniors, regardless of race.

Mr. Watts, co-chairman of the Republican National Convention, said he encouraged Mr. Bush to speak at the NAACP's annual meeting because "it was the right thing to do."

"Governor Bush was willing to take his lumps and go into an audience that's not traditionally a Republican audience," Mr. Watts said. "The NAACP was able to see a Republican, on their turf, laying out some of his thoughts."

In his speech, Mr. Bush told the group that discrimination is still a reality and that strong civil rights enforcement would be a "cornerstone" of his administration.

While black voters usually vote for Democratic candidates, their support for Mr. Bush nearly doubled in his two gubernatorial campaigns. He received 15 percent of the black vote in 1994 and 27 percent in 1998.

Rep. John Conyers Jr., Michigan Democrat and the most senior black member of Congress, said he doesn't think Mr. Bush's efforts will win over many black voters. But he also said he's unsure that Vice President Al Gore, who speaks to the NAACP today, can energize the black community.

"The energy level is not where President Clinton has had it," Mr. Conyers said. "Therein lies the challenge for Al Gore. We think he hasn't been able to do what Bill Clinton was able to do. [Mr. Clinton] didn't just have a [black] person [in the campaign]. There were [black] people in and out all the time. That makes a difference."

Part of the challenge for Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush is neither measures up to Mr. Clinton in the eyes of black voters.

David Bositis, who studies black voting patterns for the Joint Center for Economic Studies, said Mr. Gore received a 69 percent approval rating and Mr. Bush 43 percent in a May 1999 survey he conducted of 900 blacks. Mr. Clinton received a 90 percent approval rating in that survey.

Mr. Gore "is viewed well not as well as Clinton, but Clinton's aura rubs off on him," Mr. Bositis said. "Bill Clinton is practically beloved among African-Americans."

Phyllis Berry Myers, executive director of the Center for New Black Leadership, a conservative nonprofit organization based in Washington, thinks the Texas governor will do better among black voters than his recent Republican predecessors.

"I don't think they are on fire for Al Gore like they were for Bill Clinton," Mrs. Myers said.

There is "significant black support" for some of Mr. Bush's conservative stances, such as school choice and partially privatizing Social Security, Mrs. Myers added.

Mr. Bositis said Mr. Bush will not attract additional support among black voters because his policies represent "traditional Republican orthodoxy." He suggested Mr. Bush is courting blacks and Hispanics so he will look more tolerant and compassionate to white swing voters.

If Mr. Bush becomes president, his top two foreign policy officials could be blacks Colin Powell as secretary of state and Condoleezza Rice as national security adviser.

The death penalty is one factor complicating Mr. Bush's effort. Mr. Jackson berated Mr. Bush this week for his "disturbing death penalty record" in Texas.

"Bush has failed to recognize that the system persecutes the innocent," Mr. Jackson said.

Mr. Watts said black leaders are being hypocritical in criticizing Mr. Bush's record on the death penalty.

"Why was this not an issue in 1992, when Governor Clinton, candidate for president, left the New Hampshire primary to go back to Arkansas to preside over an execution of a gentleman … who was black and mentally challenged?" Mr. Watts said. "We're getting to the point where racism is not determined by your skin color racism is determined by your party affiliation."

Mr. Kennedy said the death penalty is one reason Mr. Bush will not "make inroads with black voters."

"Every person of color knows the criminal justice system has inherent flaws, particularly when it comes to treatment of minorities and African-Americans," Mr. Kennedy said.

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